Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, James Hamilton, Walter Kelley
Based on a Novel by: Willi Heinrich
Starring: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner, Klaus Löwitsch, Vadim Glowna, Roger Fritz, Dieter Schidor, Burkhard Driest, Fred Stillkrauth
Country: Germany, UK
Running Time: 133 mins (UHD / Blu-Ray) / 128 mins (DVD)
Year:1977
BBFC Certificate: 18

Despite having clear problems with alcohol and drugs, on top of well-documented clashes with producers regarding control over his films, Sam Peckinpah was still a respected director in the mid-70s. He was even reportedly approached to work on Superman and Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of King Kong. Instead, Peckinpah took up an offer made by a German producer, Wolf C. Hartwig, to make the war film Cross of Iron. Hartwig was better known at the time for making cheap genre movies, largely pornographic films. He had grand plans for this new project though and managed to pull together a larger budget than he was used to, though reportedly much of this money didn’t surface during production, leading to many issues.

Peckinpah was drawn to the project largely because he was promised full control and final cut on the film and, whilst there were problems due to the aforementioned budget issues, he largely got his way. This helped Cross of Iron become, by all accounts, the director’s last great film.

At least that’s the general consensus these days. On release, US critics were less enamoured with the film, though it had some admirers, including Orson Welles, who called it “the best war film he had seen about the ordinary enlisted man since All Quiet on the Western Front.” As such, and not helped by Star Wars drawing in audiences that year, the film performed poorly in the US.

It did much better critically and commercially in many other territories though, particularly Germany and Japan. It was successful enough, in fact, to spawn a sequel, made in 1979, known as Breakthrough. The acclaim helped keep the flame burning for the film, which is now considered an anti-war classic.

Studiocanal have released Cross of Iron before on Blu-ray and other formats but are revisiting the film to bring it up into the 4k generation with a new restoration and a few extra supplements.

Having not actually seen the film yet, I figured now was as good a time as any and requested a copy to review.

Set on the Eastern Front in World War II, the year after the pivotal battle of Stalingrad, the film follows a German platoon led by the battle-hardened Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) as they clash with a newly arrived, aristocratic Prussian officer, Captain Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell), who is desperate to win the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honour.

The film’s plot is driven by the conflict between Steiner and Stransky, who represent two very different sides of the German military. Steiner is a pragmatic soldier who is more concerned with survival and protecting his men than with glory. Stransky, on the other hand, is a careerist who is willing to sacrifice his men for his own advancement.

Cross of Iron was based on a novel called ‘The Willing Flesh’ by Willi Heinrich, who drew from his own experiences fighting on the Eastern front during WWII. He was one of the few survivors. Peckinpah was a US Marine too. He enlisted during WWII but didn’t travel abroad with his battalion until after the war, when he was sent to China with the job of disarming Japanese soldiers and repatriating them. He wasn’t involved in any combat himself but witnessed some atrocities between the Chinese and Japanese during his time there.

With experienced soldiers behind the film then, Cross of Iron has a gritty authenticity to it that was rare in war films that came prior. It also paints a damning picture of the authority figures that start these wars and drag them out for their own benefit, whilst the everyday folk are forced to kill each other and do whatever it takes to survive.

It was quite a brave and surprising film at the time, seeing an American filmmaker make a film about WWII from a German perspective with no US or English soldiers. Even the Russian ones are faceless. In doing so, Peckinpah demonstrates how soldiers from any nation are still just men (or women, as a later scene reminds us) and are all simply trying to cling to life among unimaginable circumstances.

As such, it makes for a powerful anti-war statement. Yes, it can be blunt in this fashion and it’s rarely subtle, as with most of Peckinpah’s films, but as always, it packs a mighty punch.

The fight scenes are particularly brutal. Lashings of blood and gore are put to use and no holds are barred in the violence here. Peckinpah’s signature use of slow-motion crops up regularly and is largely very effective, though occasionally it’s used in unusual circumstances and might be seen as stylising the violence it’s supposed to be condemning.

Quite often though, the battle scenes are shot and edited in a frenetic, chaotic fashion that can be confusing to follow. Whilst this could be seen as a criticism, it serves to create a fittingly intense and disorientating atmosphere where it’s not always clear who is who. This idea that the confusion is intentional is backed up in a line where a clueless Stransky states that “We’re attacking, we’re defending, we’re counter-attacking”. This blurring of who’s who and who’s doing what on the battlefield, once again, reinforces the fact that everyone fighting is one and the same, on all sides.

That’s not to say all the characters are indistinguishable from one another. An excellent cast has been assembled here and the writing is strong enough to allow for a fascinating bunch of characters. There are a couple of homosexual soldiers that are a particularly interesting touch, leading to a powerful scene where the cruel Stransky manipulates their ‘desires’ to his own advantage.

Peckinpah is notorious for paying little attention to women in his films though and Senta Berger’s nurse love-interest strand feels out of place here but it leads to some interesting conversations between the pair surrounding Steiner’s feelings about the war. The hospital portion of the film, where Steiner recuperates after suffering from a concussion, also allows the film to explore the idea of the mental trauma suffered by soldiers and veterans.

Hartwig’s wife, Véronique Vendell, was given a small role too but it ended up being in possibly the most disturbing sequence in the film. Peckinpah let someone else direct it which, as you might imagine, made the producer furious.

Peckinpah also ran into problems with Hartwig at the end of the film, not being able to get what he wanted due to time and budget constraints. The producer refused to let Peckinpah continue shooting as planned (they’d left the conclusion until last in the schedule), giving him a rewritten ending to direct. Peckinpah tore this up but still couldn’t do what he planned, so was forced to improvise a new ending on the spot. It’s a surprising and slightly unusual conclusion but I think it effectively fits the tone and message, concluding on a near-maniacal and nihilistic note.

Overall then, Cross of Iron is a bleak, harsh film about the cruelty and futility of war. Peckinpah could perhaps have shown a little more subtlety in his message but it’s hard to deny that it has the impact it sets out to deliver.

Film:

Cross of Iron is being released in a new 4K restoration coming to UHD Steelbook, Blu-Ray & DVD and with new bonus material, on 31st July as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics series. I watched the Blu-ray version and I thought the new transfer looks fantastic, with sharp details and a high range of tones, though I thought there were a couple of little inconsistencies in colour correction in shots in one or two scenes. This might have been as it looked originally though. I couldn’t find the shots again when I took my screengrabs.

What I did manage to do when I captured my screengrabs though, was to get one from the previous Studiocanal Blu-ray to compare (see below). It’s probably hard to tell from my compressed screengrabs, but there is a subtle difference in colour and contrast. The newer transfer has less crushed blacks, allowing for a greater dynamic range and enhanced details. As such, it looks a little lighter and the colours look a touch more natural. It’s not a hugely different transfer then but definitely a slight improvement and certainly looks good.

I had no issues with the audio either.

4K UHD Steelbook, Blu-Ray & DVD Extras:

– Audio Commentary by filmmaker and film historian Mike Siegel, recorded in 2023
– NEW Promoting STEINER (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– NEW STEINER on the set (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– NEW Filming STEINER (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– NEW Filming STEINER pt 2 (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– NEW STEINER in colour (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– On Location: Sam Peckinpah (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– On Location: James Coburn (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– On Location: Maximilian Schell (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– On Location: James Mason (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– On Location: David Warner (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Passion and Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s War (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Kruger Kisses Kern (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Vadim & Sam: Father & Son (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Cutting Room Floor (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Steiner in Japan: Ads filmed in 1977 (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– Mike’s Home Movies: Steiner & Kiesel Meet Again (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– US/UK Trailer (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– German Trailer (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)
– US TV Spot (Steelbook & Blu-Ray only)

Studiocanal’s 2011 Blu-ray (click to see at full size):

Studiocanal’s new 4k remastered Blu-ray (click to see full size):

Much of the supplemental material was included in the previous Studiocanal release, but the commentary is new to any UK disc, as are the handful of ‘Steiner’ featurettes listed above.

In his commentary, Mike Siegel openly states early on that he’s not interested in analysing the film, as it speaks for itself, but wants to talk about its production, as a historian. Much of his commentary covers his experiences in producing his epic documentary series about Peckinpah though. He has some enjoyable anecdotes to tell surrounding this. Siegel is extremely passionate about Peckinpah, made clear through his history of producing documentaries and extras for the director’s films as well as a book on his work. As such, his commentary here is dense and heartfelt. Siegel supplied or compiled all of the extras for this release and previous ones too. Due to his involvement elsewhere, he does his best to avoid repeating stories and behind-the-scenes information.

Siegel’s documentary Passion and Poetry provides an excellent account of the making of the film, told by various people involved in it. There’s a lot of love for Peckinpah and his eccentricities but also some frank accounts of his various problems. Senta Berger, in particular, doesn’t hold back. It’s also wonderfully illustrated with a wealth of behind-the-scenes stills and some footage.

The various added interviews are taken from the sessions that formed Passion and Poetry. As such, they work in expanding the story. There are some wonderful anecdotes. Vadim Glowna has some particularly eye-opening and occasionally moving tales to tell. The ‘Cutting Room Floor’ piece is interesting too, discussing the amount of material taken out of the film. Peckinpah shot a lot of film but didn’t use it all in the end. The featurette includes stills and a little video footage of a lot of what was missing from the final cut.

I also enjoyed the ‘Steiner in Japan’ piece. It contains a couple of cool Japanese adverts Coburn and Peckinpah produced whilst over there for the Cross of Iron premiere.

‘Mike’s Home Movies’ is made up of a collection of video footage Siegel shot at a Peckinpah retrospective he put on in Padua. It contains some nice soundbites from Coburn and Warner.

The ‘On Location’ featurettes are made up of archive promotional audio interviews with the listed cast and crew members, played over the top of wonderful behind-the-scenes photos. Due to their nature, they’re not as frank as the other, more recent interviews so can feel a little ‘fluffy’, but they still have value, allowing those speaking to give their take on the film.

The German trailer is worth watching too, as it contains a short segment of a deleted scene as well as, bizarrely, a load of shots from a completely different war film! Producer Wolf Hartwig shoved them in the trailer for whatever reason.

There are also a huge number of behind-the-scenes stills and publicity images included here in various themed slideshows (these are the ‘Steiner’ pieces listed above). Most of these show up in the various documentaries and featurettes so don’t make for vital separate viewing but if you want to view the images without other distractions they’re here as an option.

So, this is the definitive package for Peckinpah’s tough war epic. Differences between this and the previous release are fairly minor but notable enough to consider double dipping. Those who didn’t pick it up before should definitely do so though.

Disc/package:

Where to watch Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron - Studiocanal
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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